Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Baby

Neeraj Pandey’s films are a mixture of old school Bollywood formula, slickly modern execution and occasionally intense suspense that doesn't skimp on social commentary and bombastic tones. His films don’t have clueless idiots with walkie talkies pretending to be commandoes. They have reasonably realistic depiction of police work and ludicrous ‘holy cow that was awesome’ thrills.

His latest venture Baby is another perfectly outlandish and white knuckled action thriller - a seemingly intelligent but cleverly mindless piece of well-oiled escapism that delivers several crowd-pleasing moments of action mayhem. And Pandey does it in such style and a breakneck pace that one can't help but enjoy the ride. Sure, most of the plot points in Baby come dangerously close to the utter stupidity found in films like Holiday, and various action beats will get your eyeballs rolling, but it’s very entertaining. It’s also a rare piece of event cinema - because how many Akshay Kumar movies turn out to be anything besides awful?

Baby is supposedly based on real life missions and characters, but the disclaimer before the movie mentions that all characters and events in the film are fictitious. It’s probably Pandey pulling the prank that the Coens did in Fargo, but more on that later.

We’re introduced to the grave and grim voiceover of Danny as Feroze Khan, the chief of a super-secret-undercover-counter intelligence-rapid action-surveillance savvy-first encounter-assault recon-I spy-antiterrorist unit named Baby. Feroze tells us that Baby has been the most successful force against Pakistan based terrorism, and since 2008 it has dismantled several terrorist attacks in the country. The film chronicles Baby’s final mission, starring Akshay Kumar as Ajay chasing Kay Kay’s Kasab-like escaped terrorist Bilal Khan. Ajay’s hunt for Bilal takes him (and us) through seedy streets in Bombay, the bylanes of Turkey, the mountains of Nepal, and the desert sand of the Saudi Arabia. Also in the mix is a nutty, India bashing, hate spewing Mullah Maulana Mohammad (played by Pakistani actor Rasheed Naz), a not so subtle derivation of LeT’s Zaki ur Rehman Lakhwi.

If you thought Special 26 seemed threadbare, Baby ups the body count and delivers the goods when it comes to gritty action, non-stop thrills, mood and style. What mainly works here is the sense of urgency and Pandey’s ballsy choice of weeding out the unnecessary bullshit. Our hero sticks to the mission instead of veering out for a few item numbers, and even though he’s larger than life he remains in a fairly realistic mode, doing fairly believable (for Bollywood standards) things. This is a mainstream film but there is no slo mo bullet time rubbish. There’s some interesting hand-to-hand combat, and Pandey somehow manages to still make all the grittiness and realism work on the commercial level. It’s quite refreshing to see a film that caters to its target audience and at least tries to not insult it.

There’s not a dull moment here, save for one hopelessly horrible song in an equally awful love track (Pandey did the same in Special 26 as well). The love track is thankfully short and we’re thrown right back into a cocktail of bombastic chase scenes and espionage stuff. To fill the rather large 140 minute runtime there are enough catchy sequences, and also the unintentional hilarity of head-scratchingly stupid moments that stretch the material beyond the realm of plausibility:

Bilal makes a daring escape from the police van in broad daylight, in the middle of a completely deserted Marine Drive, after leisurely shooting three cops and walking away. Anyone who’s been to Bombay knows that the only time you’d find a deserted main road is during the Rapture.

There’s also a scene where Feroze explains to the CM how Pakistani terror organisations are breeding home grown terrorists in India, much to the CM’s shock. One would imagine the CM would be well aware of the most basic security threat to the country. I presume Pandey actually uses that scene to render the message to the Akshay’s usual audience.

Speaking of which, Akshay deserves credit for choosing such a project and making it work. He’s got his usual cocksure swagger, his impressive athletic prowess and he manages to restrain himself pretty well during the dramatic beats. He even hurls a few one-liners in hilariously passive ways. If only he’d stopped himself from giving into his desire to display his jumping abilities.

Adding some much-welcome layer to a very standard character, Taapsee Pannu is rather fun as Ajay’s team member who kicks a lot of ass during her mission. Her violent encounter with Sushant Singh’s shady businessman makes, very crowd pleasingly, the first case of women empowerment of 2015. Kudos also to Pandey for delivering action scenes that are visually slick, cohesive and also narratively consistent. Most desi films lazily do quick cuts to cheat their way through so it’s nice to sit back and watch the onscreen tension unfold.

A rewatchable thriller can spark conversations about how unexpected some scenes were, but most of the conversations following Baby will consist of how true the film actually was. On one hand we’re expected to simply take everything at face value, assume the anti terrorist unit and the mission in the film are real, and on the other hand we're also made to digest the vast amount of very obvious creative liberty. It’s the self-contradictory narrative that also plagued D Day and Madras Café. So no matter whether you like the film or not, it’s hard to deem Pandey a thought provoking filmmaker because Baby seems a lot sillier a few hours after you see it. It’s right to deem Pandey as a smart commercial filmmaker then, because Baby is a film that exists for the singular purpose of rendering two and a half hours of slickly crafted and frequently outlandish thrills. And just like Ajay Singh himself, the movie doesn't stop until its mission is complete. Just plug some cotton in your ears though, the music is loud enough to wake up the dead.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Dolly Ki Doli

Some will call Dolly ki Doli the best Sonam Kapoor movie as of now. But what those people are saying is that Dolly ki Doli is better than I Hate Luv Stories, Mausam, Players and Bewakoofiyan. It doesn’t add up to much of a compliment, even if Kapoor is such a beautiful person.

In Abhishek Dogra’s debut film Dolly (as played by Kapoor) is part of a con gang that finds suitably stupid eligible bachelors, gets them married to Dolly, who mixes sleep medicine in the suhaag raat doodh and makes off after robbing them dry. One of her gang members (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub) who generally plays the brother is miffed because he digs her. One of her victims (Rajkummar Rao) is miffed because he still wants her. One of the police officers on the case (Pulkit Samrat) is miffed because he wants revenge against her.

If this all sounds a bit vague and meandering, that's because Dolly Ki Doli is precisely that. The thing is, wherever the meandering narrative turns towards, there’s something interesting to look at. Rao is this hardcore Jatt softened into a weepie after nursing his broken heart. Rao is such a natural he can make you like anything he appears in, even if the material is way below his talent level. One of the victims’ mother is Archana Puran Singh, who brings the house down as the hilariously witchy, crass and self centered Punjabun mother. Singh’s boisterous bitching makes it really hard to suppress your giggles. Also bringing on the guffaws is Varun Sharma as the quintessential Delhi buffoon desperate to please a pretty girl. The funniest moment in the film is when he’s getting beaten with a shoe by a fellow Dolly victim.

Plus there’s the always likable Manoj Joshi, Rajesh Sharma and Brijendra Kala in tiny supporting roles, lending their bits of assured niceness that they generally do.

The problem is all the disparate goodies rise and eventually crumble because of the weak foundation of their root - the central character of Dolly who is not only terribly written but also severely underperformed by Sonam Kapoor. Whether Dolly is happy, or sad, or scared, or upset, or frustrated, or angry, or tipsy, there is literally no change in Sonam’s personality. It’s only the volume of her voice that changes. Her presence is simply too insubstantial to support an entire story.

It doesn’t help that her character has no backstory whatsoever – we never get to know why she’s into the con game, where she’s originally from or why she has no interest in a real relationship. One presumes that such things have to be excised to keep the runtime short, but it takes away a large slice of the film’s quality. Moreover, when the best thing you can say about a movie is that its runtime is just 110 minutes, you're not exactly talking about a great piece of filmmaking.

There are also a ton of truly astronomical plotholes in the movie. Dolly’s gang manages to dupe more than a dozen grooms and their respective families in the film, yet there is not a single picture of the gang in the wedding photos to show to the police. The film often tries to make us forget such logical leaps of faith by asking us to simply go with the flow of the series of the small, light hearted comedic moments. But then it also renders three completely out of place songs, one truly nonsensical celebrity cameo, and a couple of seriously ham handed attempts at ‘emancipation’. A few characters bicker, and they suddenly forgive each other. The cons are so contrived and the ending so predictable you’ll wonder why the characters didn’t go ahead with their actions an hour earlier.  Come to think to it, none of it makes any sense whatsoever. Including the thakela nature of Malaika Arora’s item number. 

Though Dolly Ki Doli doesn't qualify as an awful movie – it’s not tacky looking, and the lingo is fairly funny - it does, regrettably, end up as forgettable fluff and a hugely wasted opportunity.

(First published in Firstpost)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movie Review: Alone

When people generalize horror movies and ridicule the genre, Alone is precisely the sort of movie they're talking about. When there’s a query about films that are neither good nor unintentionally funny, Alone is the kind of movie that pops into people’s heads.

It's actually not very surprising that Alone is a breathtakingly terrible film. If you’ve been exposed to the works of director Bhushan Patel – 1940 Evil Returns and Ragini MMS 2 – you’d be the one to blame if you expect anything remotely watchable. And on that front the film meets your expectations:

a) It looks more like a Gladrags cover shoot featuring scantily clad Bipasha and Karan Singh Grover than a movie with a story.

b) The acting from both the stalwarts ranges from hilariously inept to humiliatingly abysmal.

c) The ‘horror’ jump scares are cringe inducingly unoriginal, and also so lame they make Stuart Little seem more frightening.

Although the credits mention the names of a large bunch of people who certainly worked hard on the project, the film feels like it was put together by a couple of kids throwing horror clichés and the wall and cheering at whatever sticks. Here we have a suburban couple Anjana (Bips) and Kabir (Grover) moving to the former’s Kerala home after her mother (Neena Gupta) is hospitalized. The house turns out to be, gasp, haunted by Sanjana, the formerly conjoined and now deceased twin sister of Anjana.

The film doesn’t waste any time in hurling a barrage of banal and stupid things that generally happen in horror films – the clichéd shot of shutting a mirror and discovering someone standing behind you, the clichéd shot of shutting a fridge and discovering someone standing behind it, the clichéd shot of a dog barking at someone who seems possessed, the clichéd shot of vedic tantric aghori mumbo jumbo exorcism, the clichéd shot of a swing creaking with no one on it, the clichéd shot of a child giggling in the dark.

The filmmakers also go the extra mile by lifting scares from famous short films – like Lights Out, where a ghost is seen every time a light switch is turned on and off. Even The Conjuring is given its Bollywood treatment, complete with a bedsheet over the head of the possessed lady tied to the bed.

The only unique thing about the movie is the ghost’s strange agenda – of getting into Kabir’s pants. That’s sort of the draw of the film – being a Sex + Horror = Horrex movie. The camera lingers a few times on Bipasha’s bare legs and Grover’s torso that seems to hide an automobile beneath the skin. Unfortunately tax forms are sexier than whatever you see in Alone.

When there’s no smoochie boochie or another romantic number shot in exotic locales, you get scene after scene of idiotic, unnecessary and cheap ‘walking in the dark’ sequences and household help speaking in the most ridiculous and over the top South Indian accents. In the midst of all this tomfoolery the film also proceeds to actually attempt a serious performance from Zakir Hussain as a psychologist filming an exorcism. A while after you fall asleep, the movie ends, and you then awaken in the theater to realize why the film is called Alone.

(First published in Hindustan Times)   

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

So along comes The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the scientist who helped break secret Nazi codes in World War 2 and helped Britain and America give Germany a good buggering. Turing was also responsible for creating the backbone for personal digital computing and artificial intelligence, and was also castrated by the British government for being a homosexual. Turns out, The Imitation Game has been aptly named - it perfectly emulates every historical World War 2 drama about a legendary man who changed the war and the course of history. 

We’re introduced to a very handsome Cumberbatch as the young and mildly cocky Turing who enlists in the MI6 as a code breaker. He has no experience in warfare nor in the art of interviewing. But he gets the job because he knows stuff that the general public doesn’t – that the Nazis use a special code called Enigma to coordinate naval attacks. Turing knows that the British army needs him, and that he can do great things with his already well established research on AI. He also knows that there is no human on the planet smart enough to crack the unbreakable Enigma code – so he comes up with the idea to design a code breaking machine to break the Nazi code machine.

Now a film about an incredibly smart man designing a machine that changed the course of history is hard to dislike. There are a few things that The Imitation Game does right, like Cumberbatch’s winning and sensitive performance, and the production design that renders the chilly atmosphere of England in WW2. Plus it’s a great story to tell. Unfortunately Hollywood, as expected manages to commit the same mistake that most biopics do: being too simplistic. It’s curious that three Hollywood films releasing this week have the same common strand of drawbacks – they’re all biopics and are all scrubbed clean to make their protagonists more sympathetic.

And it’s frustrating that the film is directed by Morten Tyldum, who so audaciously transcended the elements of formula in his native Norwegian film Headhunters. While that movie had characters without clear segments of antagonism or protagonism, The Imitation Game paints its characters in very broad strokes. We’re repeatedly told Turing is a great man, and the Brits were utterly rubbish towards him, and the Nazis are horrible as well. And yet, none of those three things are explored in depth. We’re shown Turing’s machine that beat the Enigma – but no detail on how he went around building it. What does the machine exactly do? What is it made of? How long did it take to build? How exactly does it break the Enigma code? We’re told nothing – in one scene Turing is struggling to fight bureaucrats who don’t believe in him, in the next they’re rejoicing over the machine being built and working.

Since that is an unconvincing plot point, the gaps are filled with other unconvincing plot points, like Turing’s homosexuality. It’s rendered in a ham handed way, with flashback scenes that keep appearing in dramatic plot points just before they culminate. So even when Cumberbatch is doing his best to move you, the sensitivity just doesn’t come across, because by then you already know the film is trying too hard in some places to gain sympathy from you, and not trying enough in other places to genuinely move you.

There is a whole subplot featuring Kiera Knightley as Turing’s student who eventually is about to marry him, and the dynamics and complications of a woman marrying a gay man are never explored. And when the gay angle is brought in, the film is too scared to give you the full details of Turing’s life. The most important chunk of Turing’s life when he was living in with a homeless man is excised completely. Nor are there any concrete details on his life after the war, when he was lonely and depressed, and forced to chemically castrate himself. Even his death is portrayed by white text rather than by visuals, so it becomes hard to pinpoint what exactly the film was trying to portray, when everything it attempts waltzes by like a checklist of episodes. There’s also a bunch of people in the secondary cast, like Matthew Goode and Mark Strong, who enter and exit the frame without much to do.

The Imitation Game is not a terrible film, it’s just mediocre. If only the writer Graham Moore spent some more time fleshing out Turing’s life in a less Hollywoody, less Oscar baitey and a more nuanced manner.

(First published in Mid Day)